Historian Doug Enaa Greene reviews The Spectre of Babeuf by Ian Birchall. Often unfairly dismissed by socialists, Gracchus Babeuf represents a break from utopianism towards direct, practical action and all the challenges that implies, and he has much to teach revolutionaries today. Spectre of Babeuf is published by Haymarket Books and is available now.
In most English language scholarship on the French Revolution, Gracchus Babeuf (1760-1797) remains a marginal figure. At most, he merits a mention in a few paragraphs, where he is generally portrayed as an eclectic and utopian figure, who led an extremist movement doomed to fail. Sadly that view is shared by too many socialists, who dismiss Babeuf as just a Jacobin elitist with little to teach the present. Thankfully, Ian Birchall’s Spectre of Babeuf provides a welcome corrective to the neglect of Babeuf by giving him the respect he deserves as a participant in the French Revolution and as an original socialist thinker from whom revolutionaries can still learn a great deal.
Spectre is divided into three parts. The first is largely a biography of Babeuf, detailing his impoverished early life and laboring among the nascent working class in Picardy. These experiences left their mark on him and led Babeuf to contemplate origins of inequality and how to change it. Despite Babeuf’s lack of formal schooling, he possessed a hunger for knowledge and read widely in history, politics, and philosophy. Amongst his contemporaries, Babeuf stood out through his own communist vision by carrying the Enlightenment to its radical conclusion. His ideal of communism, or the “common happiness,” envisioned an end to private property and the creation of an equal society. A planned economy would end crippling poverty by lessening the burdens of labour and provide subsistence to the people. Babeuf did not believe people should lead spartan lives, but that everyone should be allowed to develop themselves to the fullest. This grand vision would be enough to merit his mention as a utopian. However, Babeuf moved beyond the limitations of utopian Enlightenment thinkers such Rousseau, Malby, and Collignon by seriously contemplating the appropriate means to realise an egalitarian society. As Birchall states: “For him the unity of theory and practice was always to be central to his thinking.” (p. 25)
After 1789, Babeuf believed that the Revolution was leading in the direction of equality and he was determined to push it as far as it would go. To that end, Babeuf was an active participant in the Revolution as a journalist, activist and administrator in both Picardy and Paris. Unlike future revolutionaries such as Lenin or Trotsky, Babeuf had no experience to guide him and he “had to observe, to analyse and to act all at the same time, to invent his own future as he lived it.” (p. 32)
While Babeuf worked for the Jacobins during the height of the revolution, his politics remained distinct from theirs. Babeuf did not share the Jacobin ideal of a small-property owning democracy guided by moral virtue. Rather, he advocated the abolition of private property, direct democracy, and the achievement of communism. Babeuf was also critical of the authoritarianism of Robespierre, leading him to support the latter’s overthrow during the month of Thermidor in 1794. However, the new regime known as the Thermidorian reaction began persecuting Jacobins and rolling back the popular conquests of the revolution. As Babeuf became an opponent of the Thermidor, he revised his negative view of Robespierre to a more positive (although not uncritical) one.
It was not long before Babeuf’s opposition landed him in prison. While there, he found radical allies such as the Jacobin Filippo Buonarroti, the future historian of Babeuf. Together, the two formed the nucleus of the Conspiracy of Equals – an underground organization dedicated to the armed overthrow of the Thermidorian reaction and the establishment of a communist republic. In the spring of 1796, the Equals began preparing for an insurrection. During this crucial period, Babeuf’s originality as a communist was most pronounced. The Equals may have been forced to organise underground, but they made every effort to mobilise working people as part of the revolution. The Conspiracy’s agents organised workers, women, and soldiers in their movement through newspapers, posters, and songs. According to Babeuf: “we conspire aloud, we give the greatest publicity to our conspiracy.” (p. 60) Babeuf was the first socialist to link the day-to-day struggles to the larger communist goal through a series of transitional demands. Unfortunately, the Equals planned coup was betrayed by a police informer and after a lengthy trial, Babeuf was executed on May 27, 1797.
Birchall is correct to not dismiss Babeuf’s endeavor, stating: “Babeuf put his head on the line and paid the price; if his successors know a little more about what is and is not historically feasible, it is precisely because Babeuf and his colleagues were willing to probe the limits of the possible.” (p. 77) Indeed, the remarkable thing about Babeuf was his ability to push the revolution as far as it would go.
Babeuf is frequently seen as a forerunner to the Jacobin communism of Louis-Auguste Blanqui. Correctly, Birchall observes that more separated than united the two revolutionaries. Babeuf and Blanqui both resorted to organising underground conspiratorially due to state repression and believed that the seizure of power must be planned. They differed greatly in their respective organisational methods. Blanqui believed that a revolution depended on the technical development of a elite conspiracy with little to no involvement of the masses. Blanquist organisations had little understanding of the potentiality of mass agitation and propaganda. In this, Blanqui resembled the classical image of a professional conspirator. The Equals were not free of elitism, but balanced the need of authority with the problems and challenges of organising the people. By contrast, Babeuf was a pioneer in using a newspaper as a collective organiser and developing a vanguard party. In his conceptions for the party and paper, there is far greater continuity between Babeuf and Lenin than with Blanqui.
The second part of the book consists of a series of long and detailed historiographical essays. Birchall does a magnificent job discussing the strengths and limits found in different views of Babeuf, including socialists, liberals and conservatives in France and across the world. This rich section covers the contours of the debate from the aftermath of Babeuf’s death up to the present-day.
For conservatives such as Jacob Talmon, the original Jacobin sins of Babeuf ultimately led to Stalinist totalitarianism. Historians associated with the French Communist Party downplayed Babeuf’s originality, viewing him as a quixotic figure and obscuring his differences with Jacobinism in the interests of popular fronts with the “republican bourgeoisie.” By contrast, dissident Marxist historians outside the Communist Party such as Maurice Dommanget, Daniel Guérin, and Victor Dallin have done the most to highlight Babeuf’s unique communist ideas and continuing relevance. Birchall observes that Babeuf’s legacy still remains intertwined with larger judgments on the French Revolution and socialism.
The final section of Spectre assesses Babeuf’s theoretical and organisational ideas. Here, Birchall shows Babeuf as one of the first socialists to break with utopianism and make communism a practical ideal worth struggling for. Many of the questions that Babeuf struggled with remain strikingly relevant, such as the importance of revolutionary organisation, relation of day-to-day organising to the final goal, authority and democracy, the class agency of change, planning, and the liberation of women.
Overall, Birchall succeeded magnificently in Spectre in restoring Babeuf as a major actor in the French Revolution and recovering his genuine place in the wider socialist tradition of self-emancipation. Babeuf comes alive as a revolutionary thinker who made a practical plan of action to realise communism. The issues that Babeuf confronted in 1796 remain just as pertinent now. For socialists who want to know their past and carry on Babeuf’s struggle to final victory, this book is highly recommended.